Millennial poll: Why the youth vote now leans Republican

Among 18-to-29-year-olds who say they will 'definitely' vote on Nov. 4, 51 percent prefer a Republican-led Congress, while 47 percent want the Democrats in charge, a survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics finds.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Only 43 percent of young voters approve of the job the president is doing, according to a new survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics. Above, President Obama speaks to reporters about the Ebola crisis on Tuesday.

America’s young voters are no longer reliably Democratic and should be considered “swing voters,” a new poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics finds.  

Among 18-to-29-year-olds who say they will “definitely” vote in the Nov. 4 midterms, 51 percent prefer a Republican-led Congress, while only 47 percent want the Democrats in charge, the survey finds.

That’s a significant reversal from just before the last midterm election in 2010, when young voters told the survey they preferred Democrats by a spread of 12 points. 

“The youth vote is very much up for grabs politically,” said John Della Volpe, the institute’s polling director, in a press conference Wednesday.

This poses a huge challenge for Democrats, who face the very real possibility of losing control of the Senate in Tuesday’s election. Their prospects of holding that chamber depend on how well they can turn out their base: women, minorities, and young people.

The youth vote was typically a swing vote when the institute first began polling in 2000. But Hurricane Katrina, two wars, and the advent of social media moved them into the Democrat camp, according to the survey’s analysis.

For the past decade, Democrats have successfully mined the so-called “millennials” – America’s largest generation. These voters sparkled for Democrats, favoring them by 12 percent in 2004, 22 percent in 2006, and a huge 30 percent in 2008, when they elected President Obama. The double-digit advantage for Democrats continued in the midterms of 2010 and the presidential election two years later. 

Now, that luster is gone. Millennials say they are as disenchanted with President Obama as everyone else. Only 43 percent of young people approve of the job the president is doing, according to the Harvard survey – the same percentage in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll of American adults.

“Millennials are no longer the political outliers they once were,” said Mr. Della Volpe.

This cohort is losing another distinctive feature, Della Volpe points out. It doesn’t look like they’re quite the “post-racial” generation that people thought. The Harvard survey, conducted with more than 2,000 young people in English and Spanish, found deep racial and ethnic gaps in political preferences.

For instance, 31 percent of young whites approve of the president’s job performance, while 78 percent of young African-Americans think he’s doing well on the job. 

Hispanics fall in the middle, with 49 percent approving of his performance. But that’s a big drop-off from 60 percent in April and an 81 percent approval rating in November of 2009, when expectations for immigration reform ran high.

Overall, 26 percent of the young people surveyed say they plan to vote next week – about the same as in the 2010 midterm, when 24 percent actually did vote. And, as in general polling, it’s the Republican millennials who are revved up. They lead Democrats by 12 points when asked if they “definitely” plan to vote.

Still, Republicans have their work cut out for them with young voters.

“While Democrats clearly perform less well in the eyes of young voters,” the survey’s summary reads, “there are few signs of Republicans gaining ground.” Less than 1 in 4 approve of the GOP’s performance in Congress.

As with the overall electorate, young Americans are disgruntled with both parties. Interestingly, their approach to fixing things is less likely to be through the ballot box than through community service – one of the millennial characteristics that doesn’t seem to have changed. 

When asked about the best way to solve important issues facing the country, 42 percent said through community volunteering, while only 18 percent said political engagement.

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